Ever since that white woman in America decided to ‘identify as black’ there has been a slow trickle of a once unthinkable admission; that some women who are not black would like to try out afro hair. I think it is a fascinating trend; the appropriation of cornrows, dreadlocks and the sticking of hair to ones’ forehead. I personally welcome it. Especially as black women have emulated white hair for centuries. However, the question we have to ask is: is there a difference?
Yes. There is. And it is important that before Cosmopolitan interlocks Kiera Knightly’s barnet into a hot dready mess, this new found love of afrocentricity is tempered with consideration of the travails that afro hair, and the people who own it, have had to negotiate.
Hair straightening is not the preserve of black women; white women have sought to eliminate their curls with all matter of tools and products for centuries; straight tresses have been desirable for as long as irons have been heated. Neither are the use of extensions and wigs; it is a spurious and tiresome myth to think only black women wear hair that is not their own.
However, what white women do to their hair connotes social, historical and political realities far trivial in comparison to the realities that black women traverse. For centuries black women have altered their hair for pretty deep reasons. Sometimes to deny African heritage, sometimes to win respectability. Grooming that subdues afro hair has been handed down by generations of women denied knowledge of afro hairstyles in the same way they were denied knowledge of their names, languages and religion.
Today, when a black woman adopts a natural afro hairstyle, knowingly or unknowingly, it is done in defiance of such offenses. When a Kardashian does, it means nothing. It just looks cool. There is nothing like appropriation to disempower an act of pride or cultural dissent.
Appropriation is the ultimate cultural amnesia. Labeling trends as unremarkable when black but extraordinary when anything else is a perfect way of denying a problem ever existed in the first place; of denying that afros were ever politically charged, that dreadlocks where ever a symbol of faith, or that kids with canerows were ever marginalised.
Black women have had big arses since humanity began (seeing as humanity began in Africa), but they only became fashionable when Kanye West married one. I remember Alicia Keys’ cornrows. But even her brown hair and light skin failed to initiate the imitation that Kylie Jenner does.
When we wear Brazilian 33 inch wavy, we are trying, in some way, to lose ourselves and gain acceptance in a world that is not controlled by us. When a white person wears a canerow, they are already accepted so it is not through the same lack of confidence. It is through possession of far too much.
Which perhaps is the most galling aspect of this movement. Why do white influencers have to adopt something before industries cajole the public into wanting more? And why do we as black people require white endorsement in the first place? It’s a circle. We don’t see ourselves in popular discourse (“if you want to make a human being into a monster[…] deny them any reflection of themselves”). But when we do we see ourselves, it is diluted. Other people play our parts and wear our features. We are celebrated in bits and pieces, and never in whole.
From birth we are surrounded by messages that tell us that our looks are inferior, and the pursuit of a white European aesthetic is not only encouraged, but overly catered for. I can relax my hair in 100s of salons in London, but I have to wait four weeks to get an appointment at a good loctician. I can buy Dark and Lovely in my local Tesco Express, but when I asked for shea butter they thought I was sneezing. In many ways it is as challenging for a black woman to obtain and maintain an afro hair style as it would be for a woman of any other race.
So the journey a black woman takes towards embracing hair as it grows from her scalp is a journey that in reality, is centuries old. It’s a story of how we lost, lived without, then started to embrace what is our own again. Slowly but surely, we are rejecting colonial ideas of what we should look like. And, in the diaspora at least, we are doing it without role models. Yes, we had Lauryn Hills and Lupita Nyong’os, but they never told us what to do. The natural hair movement has happened as naturally as a child learns to walk.
This is why it is exhausting to see the celebration of afro hair on the pages of the same magazines that have been telling us to straighten them out for all these years. They should be celebrating the people from which the hair grows. The about turn smarts because the efficacy of their propaganda embarrasses us. All those products that polluted our pillows, all the scalp burning and all those hours spent in a dingy salon in Peckham, it was all because we bought into a principles that the oppressor doesn’t even believe anymore.
Now they are changing their minds like we hadn’t changed ours already. Put frankly, it’s annoying. Mostly, it is yet another example of our invisibility. It is not afro hair that is desirable in these pieces. It is the mimicry of it. One gym session and Kylie Jenner’s cornrows will return to their European state. As black women, we never just mimicked Eurocentric styles. We assumed them. We made them so much a part of our self-image it is possible Beyonce to advertise shampoo. We describe hair that looks like Tina Turner’s hair as Tina Turner hair. But it was never hers.*
We are not our hair, but we are our history and we for too long enforced definitions of what is and is not acceptable that were invented by Eurocentric powers. Until it is natural for us to see a newsreader with dreadlocks, a business man with a canerow or a president with a fade, afro hair, and the things we do with it, will be viewed through the prism of our oppression. What white people do, will be viewed with nothing more vacuous than piqued interest. So we are copied, as we copied them. But it is not the same.